Clyde Barrow:  “This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow.  We rob banks.”

[Warren Beatty, “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967)] 

Motion pictures about crime have always been popular with the general public.  One of the very first films that popularized this genre was the silent film, “The Great Train Robbery” (1903).  Besides it being a Western (another popular genre), it was also a crime picture involving a robbery.  Basically, crime pictures from the very beginning usually consisted of either stories of murder or of robbery in many different ways.  For robberies or “heists,” It was not really surprising why they were so popular, once you thought about it.  They could fall into any number of different and popular categories for a picture.  They could also be emotionally suspenseful, dangerous, exciting, violent, complex, frightening, thought provoking, etc.  For some of these pictures, you could even find yourself actually rooting for the criminals like in the more recent “Ocean’s Eleven” pictures for example.  You really wouldn’t want to see George Clooney ever put into prison at the end of any of these films, would you?  If that were the case, we might be deprived of him doing more of those wonderful (?) Nespresso commercials, won’t we?  Hmmm!  On second thought, lock him the Hell up!  Nevertheless, for this month’s Blog Post I will be discussing various types of “heist” pictures (and hold the Nespresso please)!

Right around in the beginning and middle of the nineteen fifties two good ones were made with one being a big budget MGM picture, and the other, a guilty pleasure sort of one that was good despite having some of the worst casting choices for a motion picture that I have seen in a long time.  The big budget one was the acclaimed heist picture, “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) directed by John Huston.  The storyline involves a planned heist where a just released from prison criminal named “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) backed by crooked lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) enlists a 3-man team to pull off a big-time jewelry robbery.  Of course, for most heist pictures like “Jungle,” even when the heist succeeds something always goes wrong which ultimately leads to almost everyone’s self-destruction.  However, despite that, this MGM picture was exceptional for a number of reasons.  First, was the fine screenplay by Ben Maddow and Huston which provided fully developed background stories for all of the film’s major and minor characters.  Second, was the striking black and white cinematography by Harold Rosson (“The Wizard of Oz”) capturing the darkness and general seediness of the world that these criminals inhabited.  Third, was Huston’s skill both in directing the story and in eliciting fine performances from his entire cast.  Among the actors, especially noteworthy were Sam Jaffe’s performance as the heist team’s criminal mastermind along with Sterling Hayden, as Dix Handley, the heist team’s thug or as “Doc” originally described him, “a hooligan.”  They make a fascinating pair.  Jaffe’s “Doc” is older and physically slight, but also cerebral, calm, and very analytical.  Hayden’s Dix is physically towering and intimidating, but despite being an uneducated Southerner who only wants enough money to buy back his old family farm that was originally lost during the Great Depression, he is soulful, sentimental, and ultimately very loyal to Doc.  By the end of the picture, Hayden just about breaks your heart.  Huston, a great director, was a master of crime/Noir themed dramas whether it was just in providing screenplays for such films like “High Sierra” and “The Killers” or directing classics like “The Maltese Falcon.”  For “The Asphalt Jungle,” he crafted one of the greatest heist films of all time.

The second good heist/robbery film that I want to highlight, is “Violent Saturday” (1955) directed by Richard Fleischer.  This one mixed tawdry soap opera melodrama in with a planned bank robbery in the southwest town of Bisbee, Arizona by three hardened criminals (Stephen McNally, Lee Marvin, and J. Carrol Naish).  As the three hoods prepare for their bank robbery attempt you see a number of connecting storylines unfolding which would make “Payton Place” seem like a church social by comparison.  First, you have rich drunk Richard Egan (Department Store Manikin No. 1) married to a philandering wife considering an affair with sultry nurse Virginia Leith (Department Store Manikin No. 2) while she is being secretly ogled by bank manager/designated town pervert Tommy Noonan (who sort of looks like a Woody Allen clone) whenever Leith is undressing in front of her window at night (Doesn’t everyone?).  Second, you have local old biddy librarian and budding thief Sylvia Sidney (who looks like the official winner of a lemon sucking contest) blackmailing the goo-goo eyed bank manager.  Third, you have happily married plant foreman Victor Mature with an annoying young son (who should have his head shoved into an outhouse toilet) because the brat is always haranguing Daddy because he didn’t serve in World War II.  Fourth and last (and my favorite), the criminals are holding an Amish family hostage at their isolated farm where the hoods will make their getaway and with the Amish father played by… Ernest Borgnine!!! (Which is about as believable as Marilyn Monroe playing the “The Sound of Music’s” Maria von Trapp).  Right about now Dear Reader you are probably thinking, “And why do you actually “like” or even “think” this is a good picture?  Well… (Oh No, don’t say it!) a number of reasons!

Although Richard Fleischer was never a “great” director, at times, he could still be a pretty “good” director capable of doing a number of different types of pictures reasonably well. Despite the cheap soap opera storylines and, at times, the terrible miscasting and bad acting, this film at least was one where the actual robbery attempt and the bank robbers themselves were more interesting and believable than the so-called law-abiding citizens.  First, you had McNally as Harper, the brains and sinister leader of the group.   Next you had the toad-like Naish as Chapman, a quiet experienced thief with a touch of irritability beneath the surface.  Best of all, you had Marvin (in the film’s best and most charismatic performance) as Dill, an insomniac who is always sucking on his asthma inhaler, and quick to threaten (“Sit down mister or I’ll kill you quick!”) or violently act when necessary while oozing an almost joyful streak of sadism in his eyes.  Fleischer (“Between Heaven and Hell,” “The Vikings”, etc.) along with his fellow contemporaries, Directors’ Robert Aldrich (“Attack”, “Kiss Me Deadly”, etc.) and Anthony Mann (“The Naked Spur”, “Men in War”, etc.) during the nineteen fifties were all well known for pushing the envelope of violence in their pictures to a level not readily seen in motion pictures before, and “Saturday” had some brutal and controversial violence in Fleischer’s skillful action scenes helped by Charles G. Clarke’s fine Cinemascope color cinematography.  He also had his hoods show a level of believable cruelty not readily shown in pictures before whether it was Dill deliberately grinding a child’s hand into the pavement after the boy tried to pick up Dill’s inhaler when he inadvertently bumped into him, or the exasperated Chapman trying to keep another little boy quiet during the bank robbery by grabbing some hard candy and shoving it at the kid while saying, “Stick these in your kisser and go suck on ‘em.”  By the time the nineteen sixties and director Sam Peckinpah’s violent “The Wild Bunch” (1969) rolled around, the groundwork had already been laid previously by directors like Richard Fleischer for films like “Violent Saturday.”

Now even though I just mentioned “The Wild Bunch,” I’m not going to discuss that particular picture for this Blog Post.  Instead, I’m going to now focus on a different popular type of heist picture.  You see, the previous pictures cited had criminals meticulously planning their robberies or heists.  However, there were other heist films where the criminals could just clumsily barge in and where, more often than not, they just had a gun and an attitude to back themselves up while committing their crimes.  One such influential film like this, which also pushed the graphic violence envelope, was the biographical crime drama “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) directed by Arthur Penn.  This picture told the story of Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), two legendary Depression era outlaws who led a gang that robbed banks and killed numerous people in Texas and other surrounding areas before they were finally killed in the early nineteen thirties.  A young criminal couple on the run in a doomed romance while robbing banks or committing other kinds of assorted mayhem was a popular subject for a number of other films before “Bonnie and Clyde.”  Some of them were “You Only Live Once” (1937), “They Live by Night” (1948), and “Gun Crazy” (1950) for example.  However, this film was far different because it broke numerous taboos by showing more sex and violence than ever before while sometimes even shifting its dramatic focus back and forth by suddenly swerving from hard drama to an almost Keystone Kops slapstick comedy or to a tender romance or to some graphic and horrific violence.  It was popular with influential film critics, the general public, and counter culture types in America during the nineteen sixties who readily labeled the characters in “Bonnie and Clyde” as anti-establishment standard bearers.  This picture also came out during a time when the Hollywood Censorship code was finally being loosened with new and younger filmmakers gaining prominence while eroding the old Studio system and incorporating new ideas about how future motion pictures should be made.  Now Dear Reader, I’m sure that you may think that I’m about to further sing the praises for this landmark American motion picture.  Well, if you think so, then you would be making one very big “mistake.”  You see, that is because I think that “Bonnie and Clyde” is one of the biggest pieces of Horse S**T, that I have ever seen!

First, this picture glamorized a pair of ignorant “white trash” two-bit murderous criminals.  Second, the horrible direction by Penn which included choppy film editing, sudden confusing shifts of dramatic tone/focus, and overtly loud exaggerated noise from the constant shootouts and the annoying Flatt and Scruggs “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” instrumental banjo piece continually being piped throughout the picture was enough to make anyone develop a DEFCON One Migraine.  Three, the acting was atrocious.  Michael J. Pollard as the gang’s mechanic/wheelman and the film’s comic relief, had all the personality of a tree stump.  Estelle Parsons’ Oscar winning (???) performance as Blanche Barrow, Clyde’s brother’s wife and one of the few members of the gang still alive when this picture was released, mainly consisted of her screaming her head off 50% of the time so Penn could make Dunaway’s Bonnie appear more “cool.”  Maybe Penn should have been more focused on having Dunaway give an actual performance rather than trying to make her look “cool.”  The real Blanche Barrow was so PO’d that she later said, “That film made me look like a screaming horse’s ass!”  Oh, and four, speaking of a “Horse’s Ass,” then there was Warren Beatty.  Always a limited actor, Beatty got into constant arguments with Penn while being so vain that the 6’4” actor was afraid that he would be upstaged by the 5’7” Dunaway so, not so surprisingly, she always had to wear flat shoes so he could tower over her.  Needless to say, that didn’t do anything to improve his performance since he acted more like some sort of a squawking scrawny rooster strutting around in a henhouse rather than an actual bank robber.  His and Dunaway’s piss poor attempts at talking with a Texas twang was about as believable as Borgnine acting Amish.  About the only individuals who came off with any dignity at all from this mess were Gene Hackman in his performance as Clyde Barrow’s brother Buck, and Burnett Guffey’s fine Oscar winning color cinematography.  Legendary outlaw John Dillinger summed it up best.  He called the real Bonnie and Clyde, “Punks who are giving bank robbers a bad name!”  If he was still alive, maybe he would have said the same thing about the individuals who made the motion picture, “Bonnie and Clyde.”  

However, a far better version of a heist film where a bunch of amateur bank robbers clumsily try to rob a bank is the underrated German crime thriller, “Victoria” (2015) directed by Sebastian Schipper.  The picture starred Laia Costa as the aforementioned, Victoria, a young Spanish woman who just moved to Berlin and, as the picture begins, is seen kinetically dancing late one night in a cheap underground club.  As she starts to leave she strikes up a conversation with four other young German men who she joins in a late night walk through the city after they were denied access into the club.  They ultimately convince her to continue to party with them where they wind up on an apartment roof getting further high by drinking and smoking marijuana while their unofficial leader, Sonne (Frederick Lau) flirts with her.  After leaving them because she has to open up a cafe where she works before the crack of dawn, and with Sonne accompanying her, his three friends later unexpectedly meet at the cafe’s entrance where one of them named Boxer (Franz Rogowski) is acting extremely nervous and worried.  The Germans have to quickly leave for an important appointment but return when one of them is so inebriated that he’s fallen unconscious.  At that point, Boxer demands that Sonne ask Victoria to replace their drunken friend and help them.  It turns out that Boxer was formerly incarcerated, and that a gangster named Audi who protected him in prison now demands that Boxer and his group do something for Audi as payment.  Luckily for Boxer, Victoria agrees.  Unluckily for Victoria, once they meet Audi and his dangerous gang, Audi gives the Germans some guns and orders them to immediately leave to rob a specific late night bank of 50,000 euros along with Victoria or Audi will hold Victoria as a hostage.  Now, acting as their getaway driver, Victoria becomes an actual part of their robbery team.       

 At first, just from the prior paragraph’s plot description, “Victoria” wouldn’t appear to be too different from other heist films would it Dear Reader?  However, if you came to that conclusion, you would be sorely mistaken.  You see that is because Director Schipper’s 138 minute heist thriller was shot in a real time continuous single take by his cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grevlen from about 4:30 am to 7:00 am on April 27, 2014 at 22 different locations.  The entire screenplay consisted of only 12 pages, and with most of the dialogue being improvised by his actors.  However, despite the improvisations, and the overall hyper guerilla film making by Schipper, it works spectacularly.  He only had three chances in the film’s budget to attempt this, and his first two attempts (along with an earlier version using traditional shot cutting) were all unsatisfactory.  Because the visual focus of the picture revolves around Costa’s Victoria, she is in almost every scene and you experience her reactions almost like you are right next to her.  From her being in a stolen getaway car desperately trying to start it while her fellow bumbling associates charge into bank, to her and her associates panicking while driving when she takes a wrong turn (Which was genuine.  She actually missed the turn which could have ruined the final take…), everything looks realistic.  Her interactions with Lau’s soulful Sonne alternate from light hearted, to uneasiness, to agitated, to romantic, and to ultimately, sad and tragic.  Both of them along with Rogowski’s Boxer give great performances.  Some visual parts of the picture move too slowly and some of the camera movements by cinematographer Grevlen are disjointed and confusing.  However, as a one of a kind and different sort of heist thriller, “Victoria” hits a home run!

Now before I close this month’s Blog Post there are two other great heist/robbery pictures that I can highly praise for your viewing pleasure.  The first one is the epic ensemble cops and robbers’ crime drama, “Heat” (1995), directed by Michael Mann.  “Heat” starred Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley, a career criminal who leads a high-tech gang specializing in big time bank and armored car heists.  Opposing him is LAPD Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and his equally top-notch robbery-homicide investigation team.  After McCauley commits a successful armored car robbery that, unfortunately, results in the death of three armored car guards due to the rash actions of a new member of McCauley’s crew, he starts to fall under the purview of Hanna’s investigation.  As the inquiry proceeds, these two vastly different groups will slowly converge into a later fatal violent confrontation on the downtown streets of L.A.  Mann’s picture adeptly shows us a world where cops and crooks are far more similar than dissimilar in the ways that they handle/mishandle their own lives, and how the life they choose to live affects them on a personal level.  The thrice married Hanna’s current marriage is starting to fail, and he is struggling to connect with his mentally unstable stepdaughter, while McCauley is totally isolated and alone.  Some of the other hoods and cops’ personal lives are profiled here too along with their assorted significant others with their own personal woes.  Other interconnecting individuals are also tied into their world like Neil’s fence, Nate (Jon Voight), a double-crossing money launderer named Van Zant (William Fichtner), and a last-minute getaway driver named Don (Dennis Haysbert) for example. 

The basis for this film was from an actual case by former Chicago police officer Chuck Adamson who investigated similar crimes by a career criminal also named Neil McCauley in the early nineteen sixties.  Both individuals even met for coffee once, and a similar meeting in “Heat” was shown with De Niro and Pacino meeting for coffee where they both showed their mutual professional respect for each other while also admitting that they would kill the other if it ever became necessary.  The dialogue for this powerful scene was based on some of the conversation that the actual two men once had with each other.  Unfortunately, for the real McCauley, that prophecy came true.  He and most of his gang were killed by Adamson and his robbery-homicide team during an armored car heist in 1964.  In 1979 Mann wrote the screenplay for “Heat,” and he even made a 90-minute pilot for a future television series entitled “L.A. Takedown” in 1989 which was just an abbreviated version of this future picture.  When the pilot for the series failed, he revisited the idea of turning his original screenplay into a much larger and more all-encompassing motion picture, and Boy, did he ever deliver!   

For “Heat,” Mann, helped by spectacular cinematography from Dante Spinotti, staged one of the greatest bank robbery shootouts in modern motion picture history.  The cast was given prior weapons and tactical training by former British SAS members and this action sequence has been favorably cited for its realism and its accuracy, so much so, that a number of real-life criminals around the world used “Heat” as their inspiration in committing similar types of crimes.  This picture received universal acclaim by various film critics and was a huge box office hit.  Mann elicited fine, believable, and complex performances from all of his actors from his own revised and expanded screenplay.  However, despite all of that, come Academy Award time this movie was completely ignored.  It didn’t even receive one nomination.  However, as the years have gone by it has only received more and more respect, not for just being a great crime heist thriller, but for being an all-around great motion picture!

The second great heist picture that I want to praise is “Destroyer” (2018) starring Nicole Kidman.  This was an entirely different type of crime picture in that it was a dark character study of a deeply damaged former undercover police officer seeking retribution for an undercover operation that went horribly wrong 17 years prior.  Kidman portrays LAPD detective Erin Bell who, working in tandem with an FBI undercover agent (Sebastian Stan), infiltrated a gang of extremely dangerous bank robbers led by their equally dangerous and sociopathic leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell).  When Erin (in the present day) receives a dye stained $100 bill in an unmarked envelope at her police station and has it confirmed that the bill was originally from that original bank robbery so long ago, she knows that it was from Silas (who was never caught) letting her know that he is active again, and maybe, at the same time, taunting her.  From that point on, and telling no one else, Erin slowly starts to secretly hunt Silas to try and stop him before he strikes again.  The only questions at this point in time are why is she taking on this task alone, and what really happened those many years ago?  As she follows her leads which forces her to face, many of the same people from her distant past, and through the use of various flashbacks shown at different points in time, the reasons for her actions will ultimately be revealed.  

Nicole Kidman has been a major film star for a long time, and during that time she has been equally praised and criticized.  While she has been lauded for her acting, and previously won a Best Actress Oscar for “The Hours” (I never saw it!) as well as being nominated many other times, she has also been equally criticized for her “method acting” style along with some really weird and bizarre performances like in “Eyes Wide Shut” (I saw it, and it stunk worse than a septic tank!).  She has also made headlines in her personal life too, maybe because she once had a former husband of nebulous sexuality and a current one that is a recovering alcoholic.  Nevertheless, she can definitely act as her recent performances for such things as “Big Little Lies” (Emmy winner) and “Being the Ricardos” (Oscar nominated) aptly demonstrate.  However, for her performance in “Destroyer,” here you see something that is really very, very special. 

When you see someone, not only give a great performance, but maybe one that is a career best performance like the one she gives in “Destroyer,” sometimes all you want to do is just quietly sit back and internally say, “WOW!”  She completely disappears into the role almost as if she metamorphosed into someone else.  Almost unrecognizable as an older burned out drunk, she has a face more weathered than a Mojave Desert fence post that a swimming pool full of Botox could never obscure.  As she drags herself along on her dark quest, she physically moves like the weight of a world full of past regrets rests on her shoulders like some sort of modern-day Atlas!  Everyone she meets, from a rage filled teenage daughter that would rather spit in her face than say a word to her, to an ex-husband who approaches her like someone inching through in a minefield while blindfolded, they all seem to know that she’s someone one inch away from either exploding or completely disintegrating before their very eyes.  Yet she is also recklessly dangerous like when she turns to two supporting officers when they ask her for additional backup as they are about to take on Silas’ gang during a bank robbery, and she tersely replies, “Backup? This is a GUN FIGHT!”, and then charges in front of them to take on Silas’ gang.  While making this picture Kidman caught the flu but she just utilized it in her performance to make her character even more dissipated and burned out.  That takes some real guts!  Karyn Kusama’s film direction is also very good despite her having some difficulties in showing which scenes are present day or in the past.  The performances by the rest of the cast are excellent too, especially one by the always great Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) as a junkie member of Silas’ gang.  Although not as big budget or spectacular as “Heat,” the bank robbery action sequences are suspenseful and heart pounding!  Maybe less really is more!  This downbeat film was not a financial success, and Kidman didn’t get Oscar nominated for her performance.  However, if you want to see an underrated slow burning crime thriller with an unforgettable performance, see “Destroyer.”

To sum it all up, whether it’s an older classic like “The Asphalt Jungle,” or more recent neo-Noirs like “Heat” or “Destroyer,” heist motion pictures can be an exciting and thought provoking viewing experience.

And you don’t even have to worry about being arrested for it either!


4 thoughts on “Unexpected Withdrawals!

  1. Don’t get me started on “Bonnie & Clyde”…easily one of the most overrated films of all-time. Since it was made in 1967, I just figured everyone was too stoned to know that it’s a horrible movie.

    Chuck Adamson…that’s a name I haven’t heard in awhile. Creator of one of my all time favorite TV series – “Crime Story”



    1. Go ahead Sean, let your Freak Hatred of “Bonnie & Clyde” fly! I did, and it feels great! It is easily on my Top Ten Worst Movie List of All Time! And I also liked “Crime Story” too (Michael Mann was also involved with that one)!


  2. Thanks Nelson for another entertaining blog. It’s been a long time since I saw “Bonnie and Clyde.” If you wanted to glamorize a woman criminal, Dunaway certainly had the looks for it.

    Of course, you and I and our better halves recently saw “Heat” on the big screen together and it was interesting to read more about it.

    I’ll definitely check out “Destroyer.” I’m a Kidman fan, though I think in her prolific career she’s been in way too many clunkers. Maybe a good topic for a blog would be — Why did these really good actors take these roles in these really bad movies? Money isn’t all there is to it– a lot of the stars are rich and can choose good roles that make money too.


    1. Thanks Jerry. There are a lot of reasons why really great actors take roles in really bad movies: (1) they thought the movie would be good, (2) they got a lot of money so they didn’t really care, (3) they had financial troubles so they needed to take anything they could (Nicholas Cage for example). (4) they were contractually obligated to a studio so they legally didn’t have a choice, (5) they just didn’t give a good performance, (6) they were just plain stupid in choosing such a bad role/picture to be in, etc. Like I once mentioned in one of my blog posts, Robert Mitchum once said that his favorite movie that he starred in was “The Last Time I Saw Archie” not because it was any good but because he got paid $400,000 for a few weeks of work.


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